Reread: Hellburner, by C.J. Cherryh

Checking my reading records on LibraryThing I realise that this is my sixth reread of Cherryh’s Hellburner, and while I am a rereader this is some kind of record in itself. One or two, yes, three if it is an exceptional book, but SIX times?

Several years ago I committed a review of it on this blog, too, though it held more spelling errors than I want to admit to… and I really want to make a note on it, so here goes nothing –

Written as book 5 of the 7 that makes up the Company Wars suite it nevertheless is is placed as the second one when timeline is considered. As such it tells part of the story from the beginning of what since Alliance Rising was published is known as the Second Company War, with the writer (and any reader who has read these books in the orer they were published) already knowing quite a bit about what will happen in what in Hellburner is “the future”.

We have already grown to distrust, if not dislike, the Fleet. They were once Earth’s, and Earth Company’s, military arm in a bid for power in the wide Beyond, but as the war turned into a no-win game for the EC the EC stopped providing for their Fleet. The Fleet leadership disagrees with the stand-down order, turning rogue. To supply themselves they have been forced to turn to robbery and contraband, terrorising star stations, jump points, and ships. That is were they are as we meet them in books further down the timeline.

Hellburner, then, tells several stories: how a collectively run Merchanter style fleet became the EC’s tool, headed by Conrad Mazian; how the giant carrier ships got their “riders” – i.e. their fast stinger ships; how the Fleet managed to co-opt people who did not agree with what was happening on a higher level.

Two specific features makes the book extra compelling to me.

First, the story is told from the eyes of the every-man. No one of the people whose perspectives we gets to share is in a position of power, not even the one who others perceive as “higher up”. He is indeed higher up on the chain of command, but wields no read power: he is the archetype middle manager, if well-intended.

Second, the way corporate warfare and desktop politics is depicted. I find the politicking going on extremely realistic, from the psychological profiles of the ruthless power-grabbers to the way the politics choice trumps what would be good for a project or mission, ultimately ruining all prospects of success… and how the psychopathic power-hungry ones’ gets a free rein by people who will have only ruin to collect in the long run… but see no other choice short term.

(Third, and I know this is an addition to my “two specific features”, is for what it gives to the fandom. Not only do we get to meet people who will feature later on, getting to understand a bit more of how they came to be who they were when we last met them – we also get a cameo from a ship of Company War renown, the ECS-5, later known as ECS Norway.)

I can see why people who expect space opera and drama might not enjoy this book. Too much politicking going on. I can see why people who expect military sf might not enjoy this book. Again, too much politicking, too little fighting, not enough battle-tactics.

That doesn’t mean that nothing happens – there is a lot going on, lots of drama. Enough to make the story into a miniseries, interweaving Heavy Time tidbits as flashbacks for background (Heavy Time is where we first meet many of the protagonists of Hellburner, a very different book, both can be read stand-alone).

And I just plain love the book. I will reread it several times more, of that I am very certain.


Read: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie‘s “Ancillary Justice” was published just as my reading funk began, oh so many years ago. I remember people speaking favourably of it, and I remember thinking that maybe I should… but as other books piled up unread I didn’t get around to it, not until last week.

In some respects it is pretty standard fare. A macro-political conflict between different visions of what the world should be and a personal conflict based on revenge and perceived injustices, all played out against a backdrop of a future or faraway civilisation vastly different from ours, yet alike.

Not as far out as the kaleidoscopic fractals of Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy, nor as harsh and brutal as Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, to name just two, but it sits comfortably on the same bench – not as loud, not as brash, stealth mode operational, but the AI is online and running, telling the story from her perspective.

The choice of protagonist is brilliant. Breq, formerly Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, was once both the AI of one of the mighty Justices and one of many interchangeable and expendable avatars – here called ancillaries – of that same ship AI. She – it is uncertain if she’s female or not but her culture, the Radch, doesn’t care for gender pronouns and uses “she” for anyone – has lived through thousands of years, caring for a succession of human captains and officers, assisting in carrying out annexation after annexation of neighbouring civilisations, expanding the Radch empire. Through her experiences we get to see events evolve over a long span of years and through different eyes, until events unfold and she is left alone, without extended presence, without the ability to see and hear beyond what any unaugmented human might see or hear but still in possession of her conviction to set things right, at any price.

(It also makes it abundantly clear that what hype calls “AI” today is machines capable of learning to sort, parse and react to a specific and limited set of data – to adapt, really, under specific circumstances, rather than to evolve and think and judge in any meaningful way. But that’s for another discussion.)

Leckie’s storytelling is straight-forward. Where other writers get at least partially lost in convoluted subplots of intricate phantasmagoria fed by the endless supply of space offered by software-enabled writing Breq’s journey never loses momentum. She never gets lost in mirrors reflecting and re-reflecting favourite words or favourite images, while in bywords and in passing offering opportunity to reflect on gender, power structures, religion, loyalty, prejudice, and identity.¬† Among other things.

I am holding my thumbs for the rest of the trilogy to live up to the expectations set by this first instalment. And this is the advantage of being a latecomer: the rest of the story is already published, no years of waiting involved!

Read: Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Still in a reading slump, mainly listening to audio books that I’ve already read before, filling commutes with lecture series, Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit might be the book that will restart my reading habit.

Found by accident as I visited the SF Bookshop to get the third Linda and Valerian omnibus something about it caught my eye, and so it followed me home.

It met every expectation – a universe vastly different from ours, engineered castes upholding an empire were humans have no value and no choice in who governs their lives… and yet not so different: challenging the expectation of humane society, of right and wrong, of who, indeed, is the bigger threat to human survival.

The Kel is the warrior caste, engineered to follow order without questioning them, even into suicide, but Kel Cheris is something more – a Kel gifted with numbers and mathematical patterns, able to define and execute “heretical” moves in order to defeat the “heretics”.

At first we don’t really know who these heretics are, but as Cheris is picked to lead a mission to put down a heresy from getting a foothold in a major fortress she gets to host the mind of a very successful but ultimately traitor general, deemed insane, long since dead but his mind kept alive and in stasis by clever tech. And as she fights him in her mind, meanwhile running a successful campaign, ultimately she gets to understand the true meaning of his treason.

Unlike many authors who emerged in this time of personal computers and word processors Yoon Ha Lee’s style is liberating.

Free from endless info dumps, barely disguised rants, or scenes that has no bearing on either story or character development, and packed with tight writing harnessing a vivid imagination I’ve already tried to get my hands on the sequel, Raven Stratagem, only the SF Bookshop was out of stock, temporarily, when I was in last week to get my hands on the book.

Until I can get a copy of it I’ll need to read something else, to tide me over.

Hopefully I found my medicine!

Series review: Vatta’s War, by Elizabeth Moon

Some books and series leaves you turning them over and over, again and again, to understand, to figure them out. Vatta’s War is NOT one of those. It is fast paced straight forward space opera, which means that there’s drama but precious few surprises – what you hope will happen, or guess will happen, pretty much do. Every time. This could be tedious, boring, uninteresting.

It isn’t.

The pace is so fast that at first you don’t notice how well written it is. But the fact is a story this predictable has to be very well told not to be uninteresting same same stuff, and uninteresting certainly isn’t a word I’d associate with Vatta’s War.

Main spice is Ky Vatta’s shame over the discovery that she gets a thrill not only from adventure, from taking command, but out of killing. She know she won’t be able to tell her father – she’s still pretty young – because she can’t face her disappointment in her, and when he is killed in the attack on her family she carry this with her; the dread at what she is, and the regret for not having told her dad. Carrying this darkness she enters on an enterprise to revenge her family nemesis.

She soon learns that the attack was not directed at her or her family as such but that the attack was part of a plan to take over the known universe, engineered by pirates, and the quest widens from one of avenging to one of preserving basic human freedoms. In the course of the action she almost alienates her sole surviving same-generation close family member, cousin Stella, who gets terrified when she learns what kid cousin Ky is capable of. Stella’s old flame Rafe, on the other hand, is intrigued as he recognises something of himself in Ky… Mutual attraction ensues, something none of them are willing to acknowledge until after their respective duties make them go different ways.
This last thing the author uses to add tension between the “Rafe uncovers what’s wrong with the monopolistic corporation controlling universal communications” and “Ky tries to found a multi-national defence force while hunting pirates” storylines and it is done in such a manner that the reader doesn’t feel manipulated. Which is a feat in itself.

And never ever does the author let the reader forget the question about if you can fight for peace, and what the toll is on those who are tasked with this fight, as their lives is in constant contrast with the values they are said to protect.

All main characters fight against the preconceptions of other people. Some of them try to use it in their favour, like Stella, or Aunt Grace. Stella did something stupid in her youth and have ever since been marked as the family idiot. Aunt Grace, who on the outside is a dotty old spinster but really is Vatta Enterprises head of security, recognises that Stella isn’t what she’s marked as, initiating her into the life of the corporate spy. They both use their disguises to the advantage of the family.

Ky and Rafe respectively have a harder time of making anything good out of the widespread misconceptions about each of them, mainly because to do what they want to do they each need to be trusted by others and those others have to see beyond the public images history has fostered to be able to give them this trust.

None of above is evident at the start. Rather the story and the characters expand through the course of the books, finding more depth in each new instalment, as what happens to them gets ever more complex. That is one of the major reasons such a straightforward tale can keep up interest and engagement from the reader, because even when the story is predictable the scope widens continuously, placing ever new challenges in front of the protagonists; challenges which seems probable, in line with the story, no less.

So – good writing, good storytelling, good plot, and good character development equals, in this case, a series which is both entertaining and a good read. Go head and read it.

Review: Victory Conditions, by Elizabeth Moon

It’s not often that I want a book or a series that I like to come to an end but with Victory Conditions, the concluding Vatta’s War volume, this was certainly the case. And not because I wanted it done and over with but because I wanted to know how it would end.

Being a formulaic space opera I was reasonably sure that it would be a happy one for everyone (even if there’s no such thing as “happily ever after” with good SF) but there was that nagging little idea that maybe, maybe not…

Again the story is told from multiple viewpoints, with each storyline contributing to the sum total – Rafe downplanet on Nexus II, fighting against corporate inertia and suspicion; Stella, changing the future forever when she patents the shipboard ansible; and Ky, trying to win the war against arch-villain Gammis Turek and his pirates; and all of them trying to make odd ends meet in their relationship to their respective heritages and personal expectations… not to mention the driving question – would Rafe and Ky manage to get together, or would “duties” interfere? Because really – how the war in space would end was predestined.
This is space opera, after all :D

On the minus side this last book was a bit impersonal. Up until then most of the people Ky interacted with had names and faces but after the battle at Moray this changed; then it was just about her and her directing the battle. Maybe this is what happens to people who kill for a living – they distance themselves from their comrades so not to get hurt when they get killed? Or perhaps it’s just that the series is about to end and there’s no time to properly introduce new faces.

The actual ending I think was… what I had expected, but a bit weak compared to the quality of the rest of the storytelling.
The story definitely stopped in the right place, though, because from there onward it would had been a very different kind of story, whichever turn it would had taken.
Or so I imagine.

All in all an entertaining and enjoyable read, worth the time it took reading it.

Review: Command Decision, by Elizabeth Moon

In Command Decision, book #4 in the Vatta’s War series, Ky Vatta proves she’s able to command a multiship space force… but will she get the funding that she need?

This novel is a bridge, much more so than the previous books, in that it’s main aim is to make the happenings in the concluding book credible. We get to follow what has happened to InterStellar Communications, to the embryo Vatta Enterprises Stella nurses, and Ky’s struggles to found Space Defence Force.

A lot of the details felt… too detailed – I often felt “now, let’s get on with the STORY” while reading it, but in hindsight this might be because the story demands that we leave space for a while, following Rafe’s tries at unravelling what is wrong with the communications network.

As the others – definitely not a standalone, but worthy of the series.

Review: Engaging the Enemy, by Elizabeth Moon

I’ve found it very hard to write up individual reviews for the Vatta’s War books so these will be real short ones, in anticipation of the series review I will write up later.

At the end of Marque and Reprisal, book #2, Ky Vatta had started to realise that her only honourable alternative was to try to locate remaining family members and to try to find the person responsible for the attack on her family. In Engaging the Enemy, book #3, she takes one step further – she starts to see that this is something that not only has to do with her family but with the power balance in their part of the known universe, all the while struggling with the implications of being someone who need to do something which needs be done if the world is to stay safe, this something being in conflict with the common idea of what is acceptable behaviour.

The book ends with an escape from a skirmish with the enemy – a real cliffhanger… Which means this book, just like Marque and Reprisal is blatantly part of a series, not to be read on it’s own. But I enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed the previous books.